Responsively Yours: When Storms Come Do Names Matter?
- Audio version, July/August 2009 (MP3, 10MB)
- Cover of Response, July/August 2009 (PDF, 231K)
- Content of Response, July/August 2009 (PDF, 100K)
Harriett Jane Olson is deputy general secretary for the Women's Division.
Sometimes an event is news. Sometimes it is a disaster or a natural disaster. Sometimes it’s a tragedy, and when we deal with the insurance company it becomes an act of God.
Experts in this area seem to start with an exploration of vulnerability. Homes in certain California mountains are vulnerable because of slope, soil type and ground cover. The cycle of dry weather and wet weather varies, so it is not possible to predict dates and time of disasters, but it is possible to assess vulnerability and to make plans.
Similarly, land that lies below sea level, protected from the ocean by earthen dikes, has a degree of vulnerability enlarged by upstream actions that change the river’s course and downstream actions that remove wetlands at an incredible pace. These components of vulnerability can be assessed and measured.
Another example is the vulnerability of homes in mountain valleys where mountain top removal and slag “restoration” is changing the contours and stability of mile after mile of land. When run off changes or the restored area slides downhill imperiling homes and drinking water, how do we assess whether we have acted responsibly?
The exercise of responsibility would result in developing responses. Responses might include limiting the things that increase vulnerability (like building homes on steep terrain, elimination of wetlands or mountain top removal) as well as planning for how to protect vulnerable populations when storms come.
Our responsibility also involves identifying vulnerable populations and raising their profiles in the decision- making process. It’s especially important for policy makers, community workers and faith communities to bring attention to gender roles and include women’s voices in global responses to climate change —a source of the increased number of disasters we see in the world — and help vulnerable communities adapt. We must ensure women are at the decision-making table to effectively reduce risk.
We commonly use the phrase: “when storms come.” Storms are not a risk — they are a certainty. Only their dates and severity are unknown.
Tragedy results when storms come and our responsibilities to vulnerable communities aren’t taken seriously. Families find themselves living in vulnerable areas when they haven’t evaluated the risk or can’t afford to live elsewhere. Sometimes communities become more vulnerable over time because of changes in the economy, demographics or geographic protections of the area. Their vulnerabilities are increased by the actions of others without their consent or knowledge. One of the roles of community is to make people aware of the risks. Communities must push for tornado warning systems and other storm alerts, provide places of respite for those whose lives are uprooted and insist that flood maps be updated when development changes the land’s ability to move water from low-lying areas.
Communities have a responsibility to ask questions about how decisions are made that exacerbate people’s vulnerability. The history of settlement in the United States deals with the blessings and the risks of water. Waterways serve as commercial highways, as recreational attractions and as a source of water needed elsewhere to extend development into more arid spaces. Water also can be a breeding zone for disease. We know that communities with economic means have moved closer to and farther from water, depending on its safety and attractiveness. Communities without economic means (and usually without political influence) do not have that capacity. The vulnerability of people in New Orleans has increased around them, without due regard, while the financially able migrate north of Lake Pontchartrain — taking them farther inland.
Once again, it behooves us to ask: Who is at the table when these decisions get made? Who is asking our society to bear the full cost of its development? What can be done to prevent those costs from merely being shifted (from corporations or farmers or resort areas) to governments, or from governments to the individuals and families who are increasingly vulnerable?
Sisters, we can speak the needed word. Look to see who is at the table, and whether or not our planning attends to the vulnerable. Storms will come. They need not be disasters or tragedies. The storm may be an “act of God.” The tragedy is a result of the action or inaction of the community.
Harriett Jane Olson
Deputy General Secretary
Date posted : July 21, 2009